By CHAD ABSHIRE
WILLIAMSON - Thirty-five years ago to the very day, the Tug River overflowed her banks.
It uprooted homes and sent them floating down what were once streets. Some homes that were lucky enough to remain on their foundations, unfortunately found themselves amongst the debris when other other homes smashed into them.
And if homes were whisked away like nothing, then cars and bridges stood no chance.
People who escaped, the victims of the 1977 Flood, stood and watched everything they worked for, everything they held dear, become one with the river.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) stated on its website that in early April 1977, when eastern parts of the Ohio River Basin were inundated by a storm producing excessive amounts of rain, a nightmarish flood was born. The headwaters of the Kanawha, Guyandotte, Big Sandy, Kentucky, Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, located in southern West Virginia, southeastern Kentucky, extreme western Virginia and northeastern Tennessee, were most affected by the storm.
Rainfall amounts of between 4 and 15.5 inches fell over the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. The maximum rainfall occurred in southwestern West Virginia over a period of about 30 hours.
The odds of this flood ever occurring, the USGS stated, were very low.
Through a process called frequency analysis, statistical techniques are used to estimate the probability of the occurrence of a given event. Something called a recurrence interval is based on the probability that the given event will be equalled or exceeded in any given year.
For example, the USGS stated, there is a 1 in 50 chance that X amount of inches of rain will fall in a given county in a 24-hour period during any given year. Thus, a rainfall total of that amount in a consecutive 24-hour period is said to have a 50-year recurrence interval.
The Flood of 1977 had a 100-year recurrence interval. It had a 1 in 100 chance happening. One percent.
The 15.5 inches of rainfall was considerably more than the 5.5 inches expected for the 24-hour, 100-year recurrence-interval storm, the USGS stated. Record flooding was recorded on the Guyandotte River at Baileysville and all along the Tug Fork River.
No large cities were affected by the flooding, but a number of small towns and populated rural areas were severely damaged. In total, 15 counties in Kentucky, 6 in Tennessee, 17 in Virginia, and 11 in West Virginia were declared federal disaster areas. In the four-state area, there were 22 deaths, total damages were estimated at $430 million and about 40,000 families were affected.
In April 1977, then-Gov. Jay Rockefeller toured southern West Virginia, but it was not a political appearance.
High water had left hundreds homeless and thousands more without food, water or electricity. Rockefeller toured the devastation by helicopter.
“We’ve seen a good deal from the air and I’m going on from here to Mingo County,” Rockefeller said in April 1977. “But both McDowell and Mingo County, you have a 22-foot crest and a 54-foot crest of water — a lot of damage, a lot of small damage, and a lot of larger damage in McDowell County. In Mingo County — Matewan and South Williamson, Williamson Hollow — I’m not sure what the situation will be because I haven’t gotten there yet. But 54 feet of water is an awful lot of water.”
Soon after his tour, Rockefeller declared 10 southern West Virginia counties disaster areas and requested federal assistance.
On April 7, 1977, Rockefeller received federal support from President Jimmy Carter, upon his signing of disaster declarations for Mingo, McDowell, Logan, Lincoln, Raleigh, Cabell, Greenbrier, Summers, Wayne and Wyoming counties.
The flooding took a heavy toll. Initial estimates from the Red Cross indicated 6,900 families were homeless and 400 businesses had been heavily damaged or destroyed in Mingo County alone. The Red Cross also reported more than 3,600 families in other flood-ravaged counties were forced into temporary shelters.
Obviously, to this day, the crest of 52.56 feet of water the National Weather Service recorded on April 5, 1977, is still a record. The flood stage of Williamson is 27 feet. The Tug River exceeded that height by 25.5 feet.
The flood of April 1977, the USGS stated, was the result of a tropical maritime airmass that produced widespread rainfall and intense convective thunderstorms. At the time, it was the most destructive flood in the state’s history. Rainfall estimates for the 4-day storm exceeded 15 inches along the West Virginia-Virginia border.
According to the USGS, floods in West Virginia are caused by three general storm types:
• Thunderstorms during late afternoon and evening in summer;
• Frontal systems in winter or early spring; and
• Tropical cyclones, which include hurricanes and tropical storms, in late summer or early fall.
Extreme flooding generally can be expected on small streams during the summer and on larger streams during late fall or winter, the USGS stated. Intense thunderstorms are probably the most dangerous because they generally produce flash floods with little or no warning. Because the terrain of West Virginia consists of many small basins, much of the state is subject to this type of flood.
The Flood of 1977, according to damage estimates from the USGS, were around $60 million. Adjusting for inflation, those damages would amount to $232 million in 2012.
The USGS also stated that flood peaks during early April 1977, along the Tug Fork and Guyandotte Rivers, exceeded all known discharges. Communities along the Tug Fork, from Welch to Fort Gay, were inundated by 20 to 25 feet of water. The small communities of Matewan, Thacker, and Lobata were completely inundated. On the Tug Fork near Litwar, the peak stage exceeded the previous highest stage by about 6 feet.
In 1988, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began work on the city’s current floodwall, which was designed to protect the central business district of Williamson. It was completed in 1991.
However, despite the cleanup efforts and the one thing many people only still retained from the flood at that time in 1977 - hope - the effects of that historic flood still resonate and in some cases, are still felt today.
“The devastation that caused these events not only displaced jobs and businesses, but it also forced people to leave the city,” Williamson Mayor Darrin McCormick told the Daily News.
“It takes away from the churches and the civic organizations,” McCormick said. “The Kiwanis Club struggles to maintain 14 members now. Years ago, it was topping 100. The flood prevented the community from being able to work together well.”
However, there is a shining beacon of hope that the mayor can see.
“The recent flash-flooding in Logan and Northern Mingo Counties shows the determination of the people who live here,” McCormick said. “We’ve made our homes here, and we’ll keep doing what we can to make it work.”